- Tyler Duke For the AJC
Kennesaw State’s football program has experienced a massive bump in exposure this season, thanks in some part to Justin Sumpter … and also a plank and a 10-1 record.
Earlier this season, the junior wide receiver showed up on ESPN’s top plays at No. 1 after his spectacular one-handed catch at Liberty — a game in which the Owls won and kicked off their perfect conference record.
“It was great, just me being on there personally,” Sumpter said about his top play. “And then the fact that we just got off a big win against a really good program … just getting that exposure for this school, and it’s been great for the program.”
Owls coach Brian Bohannon has been adamant about building the program from nothing and making Kennesaw State a recognizable name in college football. Sumpter’s play and the overall play of the team has put that goal within distance only three years in.
“From Day 1, we wanted to brand the program and find our way to get the word out about the K-S,” Bohannon said. “And I think this year has been unique from Justin’s play to the plank. And the neat thing about all of it is this has all happened organically. We haven’t had to manufacture any of it. It just happened. And the really good things usually happen this way.”
Sumpter didn’t arrive as a heralded recruit. In fact, he wasn’t even a top-three rated receiver at his high school, Sandy Creek, as a junior. In his senior year, teammate Demarre Kitt got all of the recognition as one of the best players in Georgia and was an eventual Clemson commit. Sumpter estimates he caught around 26 passes that season.
He had four scholarship offers — from Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian, Ball State and KSU. He was set on Ball State before it didn’t have any more room for a receiver. He then set his sights on Gardner-Webb, but a 30-minute phone call from Owls offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut before Sumpter’s basketball practice convinced him to take a visit to Kennesaw. He fell in love, and the rest is history.
“Well, he was a big, tall, physical receiver,” Bohannon remembers about Sumpter. “He probably runs better now than he did in high school. He ran good, but it wasn’t a burner. He didn’t get a ton of touches because of what they were doing (on offense) as well. We really liked him, he was a good player. We got on him, and it came down to us and Gardner-Webb. Fortunately, he came here.”
To his own surprise, even, Sumpter came in and started immediately as a freshman. He developed a chemistry with former Owls quarterback Trey White and became the most consistent and dependable receiver on the team. Now two years later, Sumpter is feared as a big-play receiver and dynamic blocker in the option offense.
“My teammates pushing me, my coaches staying on me, because there were times I didn’t feel I was ready for the spot,” Sumpter said about how he was able to contribute so quickly. “They pushed me and believed in me, and I didn’t want to let them down. It was always in the back of my head when I was working out and stuff like that to just be there for the team.”
Bohannon raved about Sumpter’s work ethic and his overall attitude as a player, repeatedly calling Sumpter a great kid as he talked about him. With him being overlooked and possibly underused in high school, Bohannon believes it helped play a part in pushing Sumpter to be such a hard worker and team player.
“The thing about Justin is he’s been a really good worker,” Bohannon said. “He comes to practice and works to get better and always has a great attitude. He’s a great team player, he takes pride in being a physical blocker. He really just gets better as he goes on. He’s got such strong hands and his ability to adjust to the ball … he’s done good.”
In last week’s conference-championship clinching win against Monmouth, Bohannon praised a block in which Sumpter knocked the conference’s defensive player of the year straight on his back. Blocking is a role that a wide receiver in KSU’s offense needs to be effective at as the Owls try to establish the perimeter in the run game. While some receivers may not worry much about blocking, Sumpter relishes the role.
“Anyway I can help the team out, whether it’s catching the ball or blocking for the running backs,” Sumpter said. “When they score, we all score basically. If it’s me having to go make some blocks to get six points on the board, I’ll do that for the team.”
Bohannon recalled a sequence during the Owls’ win against Charleston Southern when Sumpter’s passion for winning and helping the team showed in as selfless a way as possible.
“I remember during the game against Charleston Southern, he was having to block a bunch and he said, “Man this is fun, I’m loving this,”’ Bohannon said. “He’s such a team guy; he’s not a me-guy; he wants to win. That’s probably been the most fun part of it. He isn’t worried about how many times he touches the ball; he just wants to win.”
Perhaps most impressive about Sumpter has been his consistency and production throughout the three-year history of Kennesaw State’s football team. There aren’t many players left who played the first season, and especially not many who have seen the field as much as Sumpter has as a junior. He likely will go over 500 yards receiving for the third consecutive season Saturday in the Owls' rematch with Samford in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
“He’s an OG,” Bohannon said. “He’s one of the original gangsters, as we call them. There’s not many left. He’s been a mainstay and a leader. You’ve heard his names a lot of times over the last three years. He’s just a great kid, fun to be around, great attitude, no doubt.”